TPC Stadium Course in La Quinta, CA
Tee Time: September 23, 2012, 10:48, 106 F, Calm
Designer: Pete Dye (1986)
Playing Partners: Matt, Thwan (approximate spelling)
Tees: Championship, Par 72 (73.3 rating/141 slope/6,739 yards)
Course Handicap: 15 (11.6 index)
Stats: 94 (44-50); 27 putts; 7/14 fairways; 2/18 greens; 4 penalty strokes
The TPC Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, California is a constant member on lists of both the finest and the toughest courses, and deserving of those rankings as well. Spectacular mountain views, pristine lakes and bunkers with sand as perfect and soft as a Park City powder day are present on all 18 holes. Punishing mounds, long carries over water and teeny-tiny greens also characterize every hole at PGA West. It’s a perfect marriage of the two most important aspects to making an excellent golf course: possessing breathtaking scenery while simultaneously providing a challenge of a golfer’s skills with all his clubs. Pete Dye set this track up in a way that tries to hide most of the dangerous spots on the course. Obviously the water is hard to miss, but the undulation of the earth from tee to green plays tricks on you. It masks the bad spots, crosses up your eyes into incorrectly judging distances (which is no fun when you could have sworn that fairway bunker was at least twenty yards shorter than it ended up), and stubbornly refuses to kick rolling golf balls anywhere but off the fairway. I get the feeling that in the days before GPS carts this course really was a bitch. The starter even warned me to pay special attention to the little flatscreen in the cart, as many hidden traps were revealed. Mix in some greens that were half the size of a reasonable putting surface, surround that with bunkers deeper than the Mariana Trench and narrow fringes and now the course has put strain on your iron and short game play.
Any avid golfer worth his handicap knows of the Stadium Course just south of Palm Desert, CA. And it’s been reviewed hundreds of times to the point where a rookie reviewer such as myself probably has nothing of any value to add, so I’ll do what I can to relate this beast of a course to the non-golfers who still wonder aloud why the 1-wood is made of metal. PGA West’s Stadium Course is basically a crazy-hot crazy chick. It’s mean, unfair, stubborn, impossible, belittling, petty and will wreak havoc on your self-esteem. But it’s so tantalizingly sexy on the outside and so fun to score on that you don’t even realize how rough a ride it was until it’s all over and you take inventory of the damage. And just like that sun-kissed blonde who lures you in with an easy smile while playing with her hair, it all starts off disarmingly innocent. The front nine is built almost in a way to gear you up for the closing holes. The opening four holes are all dry, but work to gradually introduce you to the severely mangled terrain that is prominent throughout the round. The first and second are short par 4’s that play pretty much straight ahead, but miss the narrow landing strip on the equally slim fairways and the ball will carom off into the long grass. It’s here that the course shows what little mercy it does offer, because later in the round those mishit kicks all end up beached or soaked. Then the 3rd comes out with rough and bunkers on the left that means keeping it safe to the right while also putting a little extra into your swing as now the well-guarded green is 448 yards down the road. Be happy with a bogey, take a stab at the easy par 3 4th up next and then the course introduces a little agua to your day. The first par 5, at 514 yards, isn’t too menacing, but the fairway slaloms toward the green with water on the left and then to the right. Course management is at a premium as you steer through the golf equivalent of an Olympic downhill skiing event to the hole. And then there’s #6, and if you chose to play the Championship tees, here’s where you regret it. 255 yards from the tips is insane. From the next set of tees forward, it is still a knee-knocking 223 yard fairway wood over water. One can only imagine how difficult pars and birdies would be if the pin were stuck on the right side. And don’t think about playing it too safe on the left, as a mishit over there finds more water. Basically take aim at the lone palm tree and pray your swing thought for the day was a good one. The 7th, a par 4, plays back over the lake and though very short at 309 yards, still takes a long-iron and an accurate approach shot or water and greenside trouble await.
The back nine closes with all the TV-ready holes that you find on the postcards and photo shoots in magazines. This was obvious when the Asian couple ahead slowed us up by documenting every shot like it was for a Kardashian special. The group in front of them vanished for good around the 11th hole and were probably halfway to San Diego by the time we finished. It didn’t help that the husband kept leaving his belongings all over the course; first a putter and then an arm sleeve on a tee box, sitting all sweaty and coiled up like a snake had just shed used skin.
The 10th plays much like a mirror image of the 7th, with water on the left this time and a nasty pair of bunkers on a ridge to the right. Then you move on to a 591-yard par 5 that will take three great shots to reach. Miss the fairway and bogey is the best possible score. Then comes my least favorite hole, the par-4 12th. Only because about 3/4 of the green is surrounded by one large moat sand trap. I found myself on the other side from the green and had to march all the way around and all the way back to play my pitch shot, and in 104 degrees it took me about 3 holes to recover from that trek. The closing three holes are all very pretty. The long par-5 16th plays to a narrow green bordered on the left by the world’s nastiest bunker. It sits a good 12 feet below the green and so close to the putting surface that any mishit is doomed. Luckily there were walkways down into the sand or else people might get trapped, my sun-baked bones would still be down there.
The 17th really is the prettiest hole in all of the California desert. A quiet, serene setting of undisturbed fresh water, a circular green and towering mountains in the distance frame view from the tee box and almost make you forget about the premium placed on accuracy for this shot. The pin was tucked on the right side, I went for it and splashed down. No place to bail out, so maybe next time I’ll just go for the center of the green and hope I don’t skip it across. The 18th closes with a long, difficult par-4 with water in play the entire way. Any line off the tee risks the lake and approach shots all have that chance of costing you a chance at a closing par.
PGA West’s Stadium Course is a deceptively tough track. You know going in it will be a test of your game, with a slope of 141 (150 from the back tees), but so many shots appear simple enough that it’s easy to let the guard down and have a few blowup holes. The other thing that took me about half the round to realize is that La Quinta is only 22 feet above sea level. Combined with the hot and heavy air of the desert and all of a sudden 15 yards are removed from your driver just like that. I crushed a few drives only to feel like a wimp when the GPS measured them at around 250 when 270 is where I was hoping they would be. That all just adds to the difficulty when instead of a nice short iron into a 170-yard par 3, you need to pull out at least a 5-iron and lose more spin. Really just come to play smart golf, try to keep the ball on the fairways and greens (it won’t, though) and have fun. Because like that crazy girl, it’ll chew you up and spit you out, but you’ll still leave with only fond memories of your time together.
#13, Par 3, 214 yards, 10-handicap, My Score: 5
The 17th may be a tough par 3 with the intimidation of the water. The 6th is just brutal. But the best use of water on any of the Stadium Course’s par 3s is #13. It is long, measuring 214 yards, and even bailing out to the right is risky with the nasty flop shots and sand play that awaits. It tries to be fair by providing a small landing area short of the green, but any line to the middle of the green still has to carry some water, and that is easier said than done when you’re trying to muscle up a risky long iron with sweaty hands. I hit off the retaining wall pin high (so there’s that) into the water, dropped, two-putted and moved on to the next hole with a double-bogey. The par 3s on this course are all tough, and this is the finest example of that without being too extreme.
Amenities: A; GPS carts, a stocked pro shop, great range and practice facilities as well as a cool memorabilia area in the clubhouse all stand out
Difficulty: A; it really wasn’t impossible, just a stiff challenge. I know it’s much, much harder on a PGA setup, but I think the players should go back to playing this track in the rotation at the Humana (Bob Hope) Challenge, the holes are set up great for TV and spectators and would be fun to watch. I know this course would be damn tough if it weren’t for the GPS revealing everything ahead of time, like entering some cheat code into a video game and getting all the secrets.
Scenery: A-; this is one of the prettiest golf courses out there, especially for a desert track. The surrounding homes may be a bit dated, but the course will spoil you with great lake scenery and mirror reflections of the large mountains above
Value: A-; it was $119, a hefty sum, and I’m sure half of that is based on its reputation and the Waldorf Astoria brand alone, but you do get your money’s worth.
Overall: 3.9 (A-); play this course, and then go sample the other 5 courses at La Quinta Resort. I heard those are all nice too, but if you can only do one, make it the Stadium Course.